Penn State offering faculty workshop on Ethics of Climate Change course

April 16, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When it comes to contending with climate change, understanding the science is only half the battle.

That’s one reason Penn State is offering a new course on the Ethics of Climate Change, which combines a basic introduction to the science of climate change with an overview of key ethical issues and which serves as an inter-domain course offering students a General Science (GN) credit, General Humanities (GH) credit, and Integrative Studies credit upon successful completion of the class.

“It surprises me just how much I enjoy teaching a science course,” said Jonathan Brockopp, professor of history and religious studies and one of the course’s developers. “With the help of colleagues, I have gained a basic scientific literacy, essential for understanding what is happening to our climate. This is the bedrock on which we can build an ethical literacy to help us make wise choices for the future and to ensure that all voices are heard.”

In order to expand the impact of the course, Penn State’s Office for General Education and the Sustainability Institute will offer a two-day training workshop May 9-10 for faculty members from across the Commonwealth interested in bringing the course to their campuses. Participants will have an opportunity to work with the original designers of the course as well as with climate change experts, such as Michael Mann, director of Penn State’s Earth System Science Center.

The workshop is open to faculty members of any rank from every campus, including University Park. Participants receive a small amount of supplemental pay and individualized guidance that will extend beyond the two-day workshop. Meals and housing are covered and there is no registration fee.

“Climate change is not just a puzzle or an equation to solve,” said Peter Buckland, academic programs manager at Penn State’s Sustainability Institute. “It is also a maze of moral questions about our responsibilities to people far away or unborn, the value of nature that supports our lives, and the power dynamics in who gets to negotiate at the local or international level. This class gives a window into that.”

For students, the class offers an important opportunity to respond to the increasing prevalence of climate change in the news. Indeed, one past student has offered the feedback that “every student at Penn State needs to take this course!” 

Even science majors have reported enjoying the course’s overview of climate science, which emphasizes systematic thinking that integrates contributions by chemistry, geosciences, biology and other disciplines. The ethics unit provides students with pragmatic tools for addressing the challenges of climate change, culminating in a “conversation project” where students lead, and then analyze, a discussion.

A mock international negotiation component of the course helps to integrate science and ethics, as students undertake research on several countries to understand specific challenges facing the world community. In this way, the class transcends partisan issues, pointing out that climate change is an issue that faces the international community, not just the United States.

Students and faculty alike can appreciate that the course is so interdisciplinary — it is cross-listed with philosophy, meteorology and religious studies and was approved in 2018 as part of Penn State’s new General Education Integrative Studies initiative. The course is designed to take advantage of Penn State as a “living lab” by incorporating both site visits and lectures from faculty members in everything from psychology and geography to meteorology and engineering, as well as many other fields. This also has the advantage of ensuring that any lead teacher does not have to be an expert in all the disciplines involved.

For more information about the course and the faculty training workshop, contact Jonathan Brockopp at brockopp@psu.edu or Peter Buckland at pdb118@psu.edu or 814-865-7445, or visit the registration page at http://sustainability.psu.edu/webform/sustainability-curriculum-workshop-registration.

Last Updated April 23, 2019